HDR Photography in 3 Easy Steps

HDR Photography in 3 Easy Steps

When I first installed Instagram I noticed that many of the photographs were beyond amazing.  Many of them had a super-realistic feel to them that I had never seen in photography.  At this time I had never even heard the phrase ‘HDR.’  I thought the style must either be created in photoshop or some other expensive program, or that the person had some crazy unaffordable camera.  To be honest, I was a little bit discouraged and intimidated – thinking there was no way I could ever take shots like this.  In reality, these types of image are simple to produce, and on a modest budget as well.  All I had to do was change my mindset – if these people can create these images, I can too.  Of course it is the same for you… before you read on you have to really feel that taking beautiful photos is not a skill that only certain people can master, anyone can – including you!

 

Longtail Boat Thailand
The above image is a 5-shot HDR photo taken at Khao Sok National Park, in Thailand. I took this shot during my first week using the AEB setting on my new camera.

Step 1:  Buy a camera with Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB)

Sounds complicated?  It’s really not, but you do need the camera.  In fact, your camera might already have AEB and you didn’t even know it.  Unfortunately, if your camera does not have AEB and you are living hand to mouth this may not be the time.  If you have a little bit of extra-cash though, there are a huge variety of cameras on the market with AEB (most new cameras have it) even the point and shoot variety.  My Panasonic Lumix G7 was under $500 and came with all kinds of awesome free stuff.  You can find a list of cameras with AEB features here.  Ultimately though you should confirm that the camera you plan to buy has an AEB function from the manufacturer’s website or preferably in hand in a shop before you buy it.

panasonic lumix
My panasonic lumix, fits in your hand and less than $500. All my HDR photos are taken with this camera.

The typical range will be from darkest to brightest (-2, -1, 0, 1, 2).  Imagine you are photographing a barn on a sunny day and the barn has big open doors, inside of which it is a bit dark.  Your eyes can see the sky, the side of the barn and the inside of the barn, however a regular photograph will not be able to see all three parts.  This is where HDR comes in.  The -2 EV shot will be perfect for shooting the sky, but the front of the barn will be dark and the open door will be black.  The 0 EV shot will be perfect for the front of the barn, but the sky will be too bright and the open door will be too dark.  The +2 EV the sky will be completely white, and the front of the barn will be washed out, but the inside of the barn will appear.  When we use the HDR software in Step 3 to combine the 3 images, it will basically take the sky from the -2, the front of the barn from the 0 and the inside of the barn from the +2 while you sit back and relax.

5 HDR photos
In this photo you can see the 5 Exposure Values. Notice that the -2 EV was too dark for the inside, but perfect for the outside. On the other hand, the +2 EV was perfect for getting the beams in the high ceiling, but the outside was completely washed out. You will see the final composite of this image below.

In short, you must make sure your camera can shoot AEB, and if you want to do 5 shot HDRs, you must be sure it has an EV Range of -2 through +2.  This way, you can shoot at 5 different exposures (-2, -1, 0, 1, 2) and this will ultimately take the richest, most detailed HDR photos.

HDR example
Without HDR, you could get the shot of the people, but the ocean view would be washed out. If you exposed for the scene instead, everyone inside would be dark. Here you can compare the +2 EV with the -2 EV.

Step 2:  Set the camera and shoot

Once you have your camera you will have to set up the AEB mode, which the instruction manual will easily explain.  As you set it up you can opt for either 3 shots or 5 shots.  You will also have to choose which Exposure Value (EV) each photo will be taken at.

 

For Example:

HDR shooting
Changing from regular shooting mode to AEB mode is available at the touch of a button.

3 Shot, EV: (-2, 0, +2) – this will give you a good range, but the image quality will be lower because it is missing the -1 and +1 EV.

3 Shot, EV:  (-1, 0, +1) – this gives you less range (very dark and very light areas may not be exposed) but the quality will be a bit higher than the 1st option.

5 Shot, EV:  (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2) – this will give you the best product, however you have to hold the camera still for 5 shots and it is more shots on your memory card, and more processing time.

So why do we need AEB if we could just change the exposure by hand?  The problem is, to create an HDR image the subject and the photographers hand must be held still, since we will be combining the photos.  If we had to change the exposure by hand, we would move the camera and blur the shot.  However when shooting in AEB mode, you simply hold down the trigger and the camera instantly snaps 5 photos at 5 different exposures (or 3 if that is how you set it).  That’s it!  Of course, a small tripod is useful but not essential.  If you have a steady hand you can get useable 5 shot HDRs, even in low light situations.

 

Bangkok Skyline
The above 5 Shot HDR was taken by hand in low-light situation. I also used the Easy HDR program for a little post-processing, enhancing the shadows and adding warmth to accentuate the golden sky.

 

Step 3: Processing

The word ‘processing’ might sound like a lot of boring work.  Fortunately, there are a range of simple HDR processing tools that cost next to nothing.  You can see a list of the best programs here.  Most of these programs allow you to download a free trial which will create the images with watermarks over the top.  Once you purchase the full version, it functions the same way except without the watermark overlays.  After trying several, I opted for EasyHDR, which not only lives up to its name but also serves as a basic photo editing tool.  None of my HDR photos have been post processed with anything except the basics in EasyHDR.

Sunset on the Beach
This shot was processed with EasyHDR. This one was shot on a beach in Koh Lanta, Thailand. I didn’t have a tripod so I stabilized it on the sand.

The price of EasyHDR which can be downloaded onto multiple computers with the same key is a one-time payment of $39.  Once you’ve got it, you just drag and drop your 5 photos (or 3) into the software and let it process for you.  Processing takes 1-2 minutes depending on the number of photos in the set (3-5).  Remember, if you moved the camera or the subject moved you will get some blur.

When it’s finished you can choose the setting which works best for you, or create your own setting.  You can instantly go from setting to setting and preview the photo before finalizing the image.  And that’s it, from a technical standpoint you are ready to start creating HDR photos.  If you are planning to display it on Instagram, make sure you save its size to only 1080 pixels on the long end.  The software will ask you what size you want the image before you save.

HDR Photo
This photo shows the result of the 5 Shot HDR outcome in EasyHDR. The left hand side shows different options for the outcome of the photo, while the right hand side allows you to do some basic post-processing. The middle is the finished product. Notice both inside and outside are exposed.

When you are ready to start shooting, find some photographers who inspire you and study their work.  With a little bit of practice both shooting and editing, you will start to notice the techniques they are using and incorporate them into your own work.  More importantly, pick up your camera and get out into the world with the intention to create!

Modeling
The founder of Nutrition Abroad posing at a beach in Cambodia.

Thanks for taking the time to check this post out – If you have any feedback or questions we’d love to hear from you!

You can follow Dan on instagram @sabaidandee or Tara @nutritionabroad



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